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Interview Thu Oct 10 2013
The 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival begins today, Oct. 10 with the Chicago premiere of the latest film from director James Gray, The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard (in her first English-language leading role), Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix. And from all accounts, the film will be a welcome departure for the festival as far as opening night offerings go, since it's apparently quite good (which makes it all the stranger that the film wasn't screened for critics beforehand, but that's another conversation). The festival will close with the latest work from the Coen Brothers, the folk music tale Inside Llewyn Davis, with star Oscar Isaac in attendance.
In fact, this year's CIFF lineup is remarkably strong. I'll have a full preview piece this Friday in my Steve at the Movies column, but among the highlights are conversations with film legends Bruce Dern (which I'll be moderating) after a screening of Nebraska, the latest from director Alexander Payne; Italian horror master Dario Argento with his Dracula 3D; filmmaker George Tillman Jr. with his film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete; Geoffrey Rush in The Book Thief; the great stuntwoman-turned-actor Zoe Bell with the girlfight horror film Raze; filmmaker Ti West and his acclaimed new work The Sacrament; and Chicago native and renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler, after a screening of his classic Chicago-shot and digitally restored Medium Cool.
Other Chicagoans making appearances include actor Pat Healy in the subversive Cheap Thrills (I'll also be moderating this); filmmaker John McNaughton and actor Michael Shannon with their new film The Harvest; Harry Lennix in H4; and Steppenwolf's Amy Morton in Bluebird.
I had a chance recently to sit down with Mimi Plauché, the festival's exceedingly busy programming director since 2006, to talk about the highlights and spotlights of this year's event. As always, Plauché is a great guide though the 180 films from more than 60 countries. Take notes, and don't be afraid to see something to haven't heard of — that's kind of the point of a film festival. Enjoy.
You just announced your opening night film [The Immigrant]. Tell me about the process of landing that film. I know sometimes you try and find an opening night work with a Chicago connection.
Mimi Plauché: Yeah, there are times, but mostly we're just looking for a film that is going to bring people together in some way. I'd say the past five years, we've done films that have Chicago connections, whether it was last year with Tom Rosenberg producing Stand Up Guys, or The Last Rites of Joe May being shot here in Chicago using great Steppenwolf actors. Year to year, if something like that's available, it's a great way to highlight Chicago talent, Chicago filmmaking, what's happening here with Chicago actors. But it's not something we're necessarily dead set on doing every year.
Often times, we are looking for a film that we think is of excellent quality. Since I've been here, we've brought back directors whose work we have showcased in the festival before. Michael [Kutza, CIFF founder and artistic director] has always been, and me too, huge fans of James Gray all along. We showed Two Lovers. Michael fell in love with We Own the Night when he first saw it at Cannes. So it's just a great opportunity to bring a great film to Chicago that I think will bring people in both because of the history of the director's work and the fine actors that are in it — of course Marion Cotillard, you can't go wrong with her, Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix. I think also it's a story of immigrants, and Chicago is a city of immigrants. It has broad appeal that way as well. So all of the elements are there.
How many years have you done this?
This is my eighth year at the festival. It's been a long time. [laughs]
When do you start up what you call the six-month process of building the lineup? I'm sure it's more than that.
As soon as the festival is over, I'm looking at, for example, there are a lot of Asian festivals that play opposite us. We share a lot of films with Busan [International Film Festival in South Korea], in particular, but a lot of those are international films. But the Korean films [we get] will tend to be Busan as well. Sometimes we're looking at what's played there and if there's stuff of interest already. Also a lot of the Middle Eastern festivals play right after us in November and December, and last year we had a Middle Eastern focus, I was paying a lot of attention to what's playing there and if there are films of interest that we might look at for the following year. But we really open our call for entries in January.
I guess what I was wondering is, when you begin that cycle, do you start by saying, "These are the goals we have this year that are different than what we've done in the past; these are the places or genres we want to spotlight?"
Usually right in November, we'll do some meetings to wrap this year's festival to ask, "Did we achieve our goals? Are there things that we would want to change, whether it's on an administrative level, a programming level, theater level, in terms of audiences?" Then we start thinking in terms of programming. Sometimes it's something we've been talking about for a couple of years, like, "Okay, this is the year to make it happen." For example, the comedy focus this year, we've often made extra efforts to be like, "Do we have enough comedies in the festival this year?" Because we always do get comments, such as, "The festival films are always so dark and serious."
It is a bleak film festival.
[laughs] Well it's not just us, though. I think international film festivals tend toward that. You rarely see a lot of comedies at any international film festival, and I think also about Chicago as being a great comedy city. Why don't we make a big push to bring in more comedies and highlight them as well? So alongside the program that focuses on comedy, we're also doing a comedy panel.
And you have a sidebar of Italian comedies, too, which is really fun.
Yeah. It's the year of Italian culture being celebrated in the U.S., and we were talking to both the Italian Cultural Institute here in Chicago as well as Film Italiani and tossing around some different ideas of, "How can the festival itself be part of the celebration of Italian culture?" From the start, we knew we were doing comedy this year, so why don't we do some classic Italian comedies to highlight what we are doing at the festival and also celebrate the Italian culture?
You also have this Spotlight Africa segment, which is also new.
It is, but it's actually been in the works for a long time. It's the third year of a three-year grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. We've had other grants with them since I've been here. One programing grant was around our Cinema of the Americas program, and it was interesting for us to see the ways of which having the additional support allowed us to do additional parallel programming, bring directors in, really strengthen the program with the additional support.
So when we were invited to apply — I think they invite three festivals every time they do the cycle — for a three-year grant, we were thinking, "If we get a three-year grant, what is it we would want to do in terms of really building programming and making it sustainable?" Of course we're getting in like thousands of entries as well, but the tendency in terms of our entries is always to get really heavily North American and European in what's submitted to us, with some great stuff also always submitted from South America and Asia as well. But as an international festival, where are we not showing as many films from parts of the world that are doing really interesting work in film right now, and how do we change that?
Really a lot of it is about relationship building and making those connections, and what we've found works really well is that with each year. For example, the first year we did our focus on South Asian cinema and we get so many more submissions now, because we've made the connections. They know we're interested, so people will send us stuff to look at, because we did that just that one year and really did the big push. So it was South Asia, Middle East and Africa, and the other half of the equation for us is Chicago is such a city of immigrants, it's a great international city. How do we engage new populations in Chicago's demographic?
So each year of the program, I've worked with three separate committees where we've invited people from all different parts of the respective communities. This year, my Africa committee is amazing. I didn't even know we had three filmmakers of African decent and probably many, many more in the city that I'm unaware of. One of my committee members is from Madagascar, and he's making films in Madagascar and his film was actually in the African series at Facets in June. I knew the title of his film, but I didn't know he was a Chicagoan.
So we have filmmakers, a couple of film professors, different academics who do African visual culture, the head curator of the Africa collection at the Art Institute, a couple of business people, somebody who works as a consultant for the UN who is Ethiopian — a lot of people that are interested in African culture and promoting it and getting behind it. That really helps with both outreach to African filmmakers in Africa. Some members translated our call for entries into different languages to get the word out, as well as helping right now to get the word out in Chicago.
And you've even got a whole shorts package of African films.
We do. We did that last year with the Middle East and had such amazing reaction to it. Last year for the whole Middle Eastern program, I think our attendance was around 80 percent plus [of capacity], and that's an average across all screenings, including our early matinees. There was so much audience interest in it. One of the things that Penny [Bartlett], who programs short films, found is it's not as challenging as you think to put together a program of really great short films, whether it's from Africa or the Middle East. If you look, there are so many there. So it's been a fun part of the process, and also doing the shorts program allows us to really showcase what's happening in so many different countries; shorts is where everybody starts.
With the Spotlight Africa program, are there one or two in particular that you think, "You might not realize it, but you really do have to check these out?"
That's a tough question, because you know we stand behind so many of our films.
And that's probably one of those questions you get asked the most about the whole festival.
Yeah. One of the last films that we programmed actually came to us from a filmmaker, a Madagali filmmaker who was at another festival with this filmmaker. He said, "Are you interested in being considered for Chicago?" So he brought a DVD back for us, and it's a film that we wouldn't have had access to otherwise. It's from Morocco; there's a long history of filmmaking in Morocco, and they're really working to build the industry as well, both in terms of bringing like external productions there, but also as an indigenous industry.
What's that one called?
Malak. It's beautifully shot. It's won a bunch of awards in North African festivals, but it's just starting to go beyond North Africa. It's about a young woman who is in a regular, steady relationship with her boyfriend, and she gets pregnant, and of course is abandoned by everyone and she begins to ask, what are her options? It's really well acted, beautifully shot, and of course a heartrending story.
We have a lot of new films from South Africa. We have the world premiere of something called Black South-Easter, which is more of an international thriller, a police drama about corruption and Chinese imports getting into South Africa. There's a black-and-white, noir-ish film called Of Good Report that I think I mentioned at the press breakfast. It caused quite a bit of controversy when it was supposed to have it's world premiere at the Durban International Film Festival as the opening night film, and then originally it was censored, banned by the government, and then they came around. I think there was a lot of press.
Those are the films with these great histories that you almost run the risk of not seeing it at all.
For a festival film, it's not really controversial, but Of Good Report is about a high school teacher who gets a new position, and he comes with good report, with all the right references and has a dark history that slowly is revealed through the course of the film.
You're inviting only teachers to come see it.
[Laughs] Right, administrators. To stir up their paranoia.
Michael made the point recently that this festival is a director's festival. You tend to focus on bringing in the directors more than the actors, for example. Did that happen by accident, or is that by design?
That was always in place since before I got here. From the very beginning, the focus of the festival has been on the discovery of new directors, and I think putting that focus on new directors automatically turns it in some ways to a director's festival, because we do follow what the directors who have come with their first films or even with their short films are doing. There are many times where we had short filmmakers return with their first features, and we maintain those connections. It really starts with the focus on new directors and really showcasing the amazing work they're doing with their first and second features, and then, in many cases, they go on to continue to do big work.
And then of course, near and dear to my heart, you're doing this Horror Renaissance panel. Where did the idea for that come from?
This is the third year that the After Dark program is a competition. Going from having our handful of late-night, genre horror films as part of the festival to really trying to strengthen it with putting more focus on it, making it a competition, making sure we're programming more films, and really reaching out and getting the films that we want for that. So we've been doing the push for them, and I know Penny was finding with the short film programming, I think this is the third a year where she's done an After Dark shorts program.
Through our own efforts, we've been seeing and noticing that so many of the U.S. distributors are starting to develop genre labels. Right here in Chicago, Music Box Films has their new genre label [Doppelgänger Releasing]. IFC has IFC Midnight that's really exploded recently. Drafthosue Films, of course, because of their history with their own festival [Fantastic Fest]. We're seeing a lot of attention from more mainstream independent/international distributors, who are saying, "This is something that clearly there's interest in," and they're paying attention to — something we were already noticing, but just the fact that there are so many more companies that are actively seeking out and distributing these films proves the genre resurgence.
What's interesting about having Dario Argento come in is that the films that you're profiling have started to come around again, being more like art and less like shock pieces, and he pioneered that idea of horror as an art form.
I think we are seeing that. That's more what we are going for. Every once in a while, we'll have something super-campy.
I think that might be the irony: Argento's movie Dracula 3D might be the campiest one of the bunch.
There you go. [laughs]
Talk about the significance of bringing him in for this.
I know Michael has been a big fan for a long time, and he's also a huge fan of 3D. We started speaking with IFC about the film last year, and they weren't quite ready. Michael saw it in Cannes, and they weren't quite ready. Again, we've been putting a big emphasis on Italian cinema this year, so we actually approached IFC with it and said, "We would love to do a special screening of it and bring him in." They were behind it, and he signed on right away. Everybody is excited about it.
I had never even heard of The Harvest before I saw it in the calendar. John McNaughton is from Chicago and Michael Shannon is from Chicago.
Yeah, actually [producer] Steve Jones was the connection with it, but John was on the jury in the '80s, so John's been involved with the festival before, as has Steve. I was aware of the film, actually before I connected with Steve. It was this summer, I saw that he had a new film coming out and that Steve was the producer on it.
Michael made such a big deal about The Book Thief being finished just barely in time for the festival. Does that make you guys nervous that it's not quite done?
We don't get nervous. [laughs] They're confident it will be ready. One of the things I like about that connection is that the book was part of the [Chicago Public Library's] One Book-One Chicago program last year.
If ever you had a city ready to see this movie...
Exactly. There are however many films a year based on novels of varying degrees of popularity. And even if it's toward the top of the bestseller's list, there's only the guarantee that a certain percentage of your moviegoing audience will have read it. But it's a great tie-in with what's happening in the city.
When you are programming a festival, how much are you thinking about the audience? There always seems to be a balance between the types of films that always seem to do well at festivals versus "What can we program that would bring people in who don't go to festivals that much, or don't go to this festival that much?" What's the strategy there?
The main goal is, of course, to program great films. So that's where we're starting out with anything, whether it's genre films, because that's a completely different audience, or with more art house or with U.S. independent films. I think there's always in the back of our minds an idea of balance. We do have a long history and reputation of being an international festival, and definitely if you look at the scope of our program, with more than 60 countries this year, we're living up to that reputation.
I remember one year there were maybe too many U.S. independent films, and it's not that there isn't an audience for that in Chicago, because I believe there absolutely is, but in terms of our audience for the festival, there's a huge appetite for international cinema as well. So the idea is always to find the right balance with that, but again, ultimately what we are looking for are great films.
We are aware that there is an audience for, for example, Polish films in Chicago, and this year it's great, there are so many fantastic Polish films. It wasn't easy just to program Polish films because we have an abundance of them. While we're aware of that, there are times where there may be a particular ethnic group in Chicago where some years we have a great wealth of films that represent our interest or are of interest to their community, and other years for various reasons we may not. So while that is something that we keep in mind, it isn't something that drives the programming process.
You're not the United Nations either. It's not like every country has to be represented every year.
Exactly, we don't feel that.
Clearly you don't have any trepidation about over programming Benedict Cumberbatch; I can see he is well represented this year in three films, 12 Years A Slave, August: Osage County, and The Fifth Estate.
[laughs] The other day I ran into a woman who told me how excited she was and how she's stalking him online.
You can add me to that list, sure. I'm super excited to see that.
He's amazing in The Fifth Estate. I'm sure for a lot of people who haven't followed that story, but he completely becomes [Julian Assange]. His range is amazing.
Yeah, I've seen 12 Years A Slave already, so I know he's very good in that. The first time I ever met Haskel Wexler was at this festival, so I'm excited to see that he's coming back. He was at Ebertfest earlier this year, so I got to hang out with him and his wife a little bit. You're playing Medium Cool, right?
Yeah, so the way that it came about was we knew last year that he was in town shooting. I don't know if we knew what he was going to be doing with the footage, but he was here with NATO when NATO was here with the protest. Again because we have such a long history with Haskel, he came to us and he said, "I have a new short film that I've done called Medium Cool Revisited, and obviously it's set in Chicago, and I would love to show it again." So after talking about it for a while, and finding out that a new version of Medium Cool that Criterion has done was coming out...
They've remastered it, right?
So we thought since there is a the remastered version, "Why don't we pair that with the short film, which is Medium Cool Revisited, and have him come talk about both, because obviously there's such a strong connection with the city and the history of the city — recent history as well as the '60s."
Outside of the higher-profile special presentations, are there more off-the-beaten-path films that you think people should check out?
I have a personal interest in South American cinema, and we've been finding over the last couple of years, we've been getting amazing submissions. Last year, I don't know if you ever got to see The Cleaner — the director is Adirán Saba, and it was this film about dystopian world in which there was an epidemic in Lima, and basically everybody was dying off, and the main character in the story was the man who was tasked with cleaning up the bodies, and he finds a boy. He goes into an apartment and he finds a boy hiding, and it's about the relationship that develops between them amidst the chaos. That was last year.
So this year there was a submission from Colombia called Chasing Fireflies. It's a small story, but shot in this amazing landscape. It's set in the salt mines of the Caribbean in Colombia, and it's about a man who lives a solitary existence there, and he spends his days alone basically guarding the salt mines, and his only interaction with anybody is over a walkie where he reports back. He has a dog that is his companion, and then one day a young girl shows up and she basically says, "I'm your daughter. I'm here. My mother has passed away." He's forced to both negotiate a new relationship with someone in his life, but also move away from the solitary existence. Again, it's beautifully shot, incredibly well-told story about a father-daughter relationship. So I would highly recommend that.
Also out of South America and also in our new directors competition is a film called Illiterate, again it's really a tale that centers around two characters, a woman who is in her 50s who has somehow made it through life without ever learning how to read. The story is about the neighbor who has always been her assistant with helping to read the newspaper or pay bills is hospitalized, and so the neighbor's daughter comes and says, "My mom asked me to come check on you, and she told me that this is what she does for you." The women who is illiterate is played by Paulina Garcia, who just won Best Actress in Berlin for Gloria; she's amazing. So the young woman is trained as a teacher, but because of the economy does not have a teaching job, she decides to take her on as her pupil, and it's about the relationship that develops between these two women.
I guess let's focus a little bit on our new director's competition. We have a film from China called The Blinding Sunlight. It's the story of three generations of men that live in the same household. They're basically just getting by. They depend, of course, on welfare, but the grandfather spends his days collecting garbage and recyclables for petty cash, has a little teeny black market stall where he tries to earn extra money. The father of the family drives an illegal motorcycle taxi and is always trying to avoid getting caught by the police, and then the son is a high schooler.
The whole story is about him trying to graduate, because he is bullied by the kid who's the son of the principal, but he's also a little bit of a good for nothing, getting into trouble in the usual high school boys ways as well as unusual ones — he falls in love with a prostitute. It takes place over the course of a month of their daily lives, trying to get the boy through high school in whatever way they can and get by, while the local officials are basically threatening to take away the welfare payments, because they know that he's driving this illegal motorcycle. It just does such a great job of exposing the corruption and graft that exists at every level of society, because there's no problem that they can't buy their way out of really, and it's also filled with amazing scenes of eating. They're constantly eating street food. It's not DIY, but it's like that shooting style — a gritty urban drama.
A lot of the noise from Fantastic Fest was about the film Blue Ruin. It's just knocking people on their asses basically.
Yeah, and I saw it in Cannes and there was a great, great audience reaction, and I love that it's one of those films that almost defies genre definitions, because it's so many things, but it does it so well too. It doesn't loose its way ever in telling that story.
We also have a little bit more mainstream film from Germany called Banklady. Did I talk about this at the press conference? It's so much fun. It's really stylish and sexy, and it's about the first female bank robber. It's based on a true story, and she became quite beloved actually in Germany, because of what she was pulling off, and the actress [Nadeshda Brennicke] is coming with that, and she's amazing. So that's really fun and well done, and I love heist films personally.
We have another great German film that was at Venice during critic's week that's in the new director's competition called Wolfschildren. It's also based on the real historical existence of kids that were orphaned or got separated from their parents at the end of World War II in East Germany, and this particular group of kids is doing whatever they can to get to Lithuania. They're trying to avoid the Soviet army and avoid being killed and gunned down. It's a little bit Lord of the Flies, only in that these kids, because they are family-less, are forced to form pacts and help each other out to survive. But it's all done by instinct and their wits. It's a bit of Hunger Games except they are being hunted by the army rather than by each other. But it's beautifully shot and also just amazing. I learned after we had programmed it that the director has relatives who were Wolfschildren that survived the war that way.
Since we do have so many Polish films, I should talk about them, and I think they are really fantastic. Of course we have the Andrzej Wajda film Walesa: Man of Hope. But also again in our new director's competition, called Life Feels Good, and it tells the story of a young man with severe cerebral palsy — also based on a true story — who as a child he's born into a loving family, and his parents are willing to do whatever it takes to raise him in a loving home along with their other children. I love the interactions between the parents and the child, but it gets to the point where they can no longer care for him, and he is institutionalized, which of course the doctors were recommending from the beginning, whereas the parents could see that he had an active mind and fully engaged him with speaking with him and engaging with the world around him, encouraging that. But he's institutionalized and just left there and actually treated incredibly poorly until... I don't want to ruin it. It's a really inspiring story, incredibly well made, and the acting in it is amazing.
In the main competition, I really love My Sweet Pepper Land. It's set in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a frontier town and just really brilliantly uses the tropes of the Western to tell the story of a policeman who was a Kurdish freedom fighter in post-Saddam Iraq, who is fed up with the absurdity of what's happening around him and asks to be sent to the frontier. Of course, he loves everything form Elvis to rockabilly, so it has a great soundtrack and then some traditional music as well. So there's a love story at the heart of it. There's a young woman — I can't remember the actress's name [Golshifteh Farahani]. I don't know if you saw The Patience Stone; she's in that and she's been in a bunch of Iranian films. She's beautiful and amazing.
So she has gone there to teach the children, both the girls and the boys, and is met with resistance both in the town as well as at home. Her brothers and father aren't supportive of her. In defiance of that, she's there. Of course they become allies, because he's doing whatever he can to keep peace in the town and on the frontier, because there's a lot of illegal trading that's run by the local warlords, who of course have no interest in having any authority figure there to interrupt what they are doing.
And my list of films to see just got longer. Thank you so much, Mimi.
Of course. Thank you.